Wednesday 22 January 2014

Thank you Chiltern Seeds

Whenever gardeners have asked me where to get seed of unusual  or rare plants I have recommended Chilterns. Somehow the address, Bortree Stile, Cumbria, seems to stick in my mind and over the years I have enriched my garden with their seeds. I receive a treasure chest in the shape of their unusual long narrow catalogue every year. I must never have been a viable customer. I am not a big spender and my small annual order  - I am always tempted - will scarcely have enriched them. People say there is no such thing as bad publicity so here is my own attempt to promote them as a ‘thank you’ for years of pleasure and many fine plants.

Seed will never be the only way to furnish a garden, especially with perennial plants. There are far too many pitfalls. Cultivars of herbaceous perennials do not usually come true, some seed takes a long time to germinate and  even though of high quality and fresh sometimes fails to germinate at all. Some plants  such as trees and shrubs take many years before they mature. 

These woody plants can only be grown from seed

Despite my provisos there are thousands of fine plants that can easily and rapidly be raised from seed without needing any special knowledge or equipment. Some plants can only be raised from seed. Many plants are best raised from seed. Seed is arguably the most pleasurable method of propagation.

Mainly annuals

Mainly perennials
I don’t expect your own seed order will be the same as the plants I mention today. The plants I highlight are really reminiscences of my own gardening pleasures past and a few are extra delights anticipated this year. If you order their fascinating catalogue or go to their excellent website you will quickly alight on plants that take your fancy. Perhaps you will not be as frugal as me. Plant descriptions and tips in Chiltern’s catalogue are detailed, anecdotal, delightful and amusingly written. Sometimes they are brutally honest. I love their prose.

Tales of seed raised plants.
All plants mentioned are in Chilterns catalogue.

Nicotiana sylvestris.  This highly scented half hardy annual spontaneously returns every year. It pops up in May in my glasshouse as a volunteer in recycled soil, in June in my borders and even in my vegetable gardenIt is wonderful for gaps.

Ecballium elaterium. The squirting cucumber. This insignificant, inelegant, inedible plant occasionally reappears as a tolerated weed. An eminent former colleague, a keen botanist stooped down to examine it. Right on cue, the squirting squirter shot him.

Smyrnium, Alexanders. I bought this one for it’s umbelliferous green flowers. We subsequently walked in East Anglia.It lined every farm field as a weed.

Verbena bonariensis. A posh lady client had eight herbaceous borders. She was very proud how they were generously suffused with this magnificent plant. She asked her new gardener to cut them back in November. He thought he would do better than that and yanked them all out!

White rosebay willow herb. Flower arranger  and Chelsea Gold medal holder Jackie Barber hired me to spray out the weeds in her herbaceous borders. I carefully sprayed her precious, not yet flowering, white willow herbs with glyphosate. She continued to employ me for another ten years and we are now very dear friends. (Sorry, it’s not in the catalogue but I could not resist the story).

Variegated honesty. When I started in Bolton Percy cemetery I generously scattered seed over ivy I had mown flush to the ground. The bold stand of flowers were outstanding on my very first Open Day. It has been with me ever since. Cultural note. If it germinates in Summer when it is warm, it is green;  if it germinates when it is cold it is variegated. Do not throw the green ones out, they will be your very best intensely variegated plants when they flower the  following Spring.

Cyclamen persicum - wild form. I shall be tempted this year to try this parent of the florist cyclamen as a cold greenhouse plant.

Chrysanthemum segetum. Corn marigold, I won’t be buying this! The field next door is full of it. I love it so much I have posted about it twice!

Dodecatheon. Shooting stars. Wonderful late March flowers for moist areas. I save seed every year to increase my stock. I have hundreds.
Sorry the white one is not in the catalogue.

Polygonum orientale. Kiss me over the garden gate. This magnificent six foot high annual germinates from self sown seed in late May, but only sparsely. I have lost it yet again and am delighted to be able to buy some more from Chilterns. If you are feeling naughty you can start a rumour that you have Japanese knotweed! You won’t have, it’s much nicer and of course it is annual!

Briza maxima. It has magnificent seed heads and self seeds itself in bold clumps in Worsbrough cemetery. The locals regard it as just another of my weeds.

Miriabilis jalopaa. Marvel of Peru. I sowed it last year in my unheated greenhouse in early April. Subsequently in my borders it made strong free standing un-staked multi-coloured plants. I have saved thousands of seed for this year. Sorry Mr Chiltern, I won't need to buy any more.

Silybum marianum. Askham Bryan students used to have lessons on Saturday morning. Not very popular to students or staff! I was taking the easy option, a walk round the grounds. A friendly but rather overconfident student sensed my discomfort as I hesitated over naming a self sown plant. I paused, looked him in the eye and triumphantly declared “its called silly bum”

Dactylorhyza. New self sown orchids sometimes appear in my garden in the most curious of places - cracks in the stone path and in the lawn. Chilterns are honest enough to tell you that your chances of getting it to grow from a seed packet are a cat’s chance in hell. They do provide a very generous packet at a relatively low price. It’s like giving a challenge!

Galtonia. This tall beautiful elegant bulb is magnificent in July. My long gone, much loved colleague, Jim Hingston called it one of the great plants of the world. It’s jolly nice Jim, but I could never understand why.

Dicentra. As holder of the national collection, I can inform you that D. scandens, D.macrocapnos, D. spectabilis  and D.eximia come true from seed.  Dicentra cultivars do not.

Eucomis, pineapple plant. Twelve years ago I sowed in my greenhouse a mixed packet of  eucomis seed. Three germinated and all proved to be distinct forms. They flowered after three years and I have now increased them by dividing on numerous occasions.

Peter Williams says thank you too!

Last week his lapageria in his frost free greenhouse flowered for the first time. Peter says he feels like a dog with two tails. Four years ago the beautifully packed seed came from Chilterns.


  1. Some lovely photos. We have had Chilterns seeds in the past. Is it still an unillustrated (is that a word?)catalogue

    1. There are some nice pictures in the catalogue Sue but the thousands of varieties of seed they offer must overwhelm them.
      It is also a weakness of their website that many plants are unillustrated, never-the-less about half the pictures in this post are nicked off their site. (the rest are mine!)

  2. I have not had a Chilterns catalogue for years but I remember being impressed by how honest they were in the sense that if a plant they were offering seeds for was invasive, they told you so.

    1. Thanks Alain - and thinking of you reminds me that I did look up whether they sell beyond the UK - and they do.

  3. Couldn't agree more - just yesterday I sowed perennial seeds from HPS seed exchange - I have had so many plants over the years - in a way the longer they take the more exciting they are - my peony Molly the Witch took 5 years to flower, now I cut chunks of it to sell at plant sales. I hope my tulip sperengii (sown 2011) will flower in a few years. I remember using Chiltern Seeds years ago and you have prompted me to try them again. Have you tried Plantworld seeds which are very reliable. Of course I have had many, many failures - you just need to be philosphical about it - I always try to grow something easy too so I am sure of some success.

    1. Yes, Plantworld are very good. My Molly the witch also took 5 years from seed. I have now had it a very long time but it does not really like my sandy soil at Seaton Ross. Now you remind me I might try shifting it to a more promising part of my garden.

    2. I have just clicked through on you Pauline and been reminded of meeting you and your family on my last Open day. I wonder if you will be updating your site with your Open days for 2014

  4. For some reason Chiltern Seeds and I drifted apart about the time they moved to Cumbria from the Chilterns, Chesham if I remember correctly, more than likely because I had discovered all the society seed available. I have just been on their site to order the current catalogue which I look forward to reading.

    1. Gosh thats a long time ago Rick! Yes society seed distribution schemes are terrific.

  5. Roger; it's good to see you doing your bit to acknowledge good service from a supplier. Most people take the good bits for granted and only complain bitterly when something goes wrong. I must say though that I would find it hard to get inspired enough to buy a flower seed without seeing a picture of the flower. I suppose you can always look it up on Google though... I used to be a reluctant seed-sower, but I have come to appreciate the advantages - especially quantity!

    1. They make the seed sound so tempting even without the pictures. They do more pictures on their web site than in the catalogue


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